THYME (Thymus spp. – Labiatae)

Thyme belongs to a genus of over 300 species of hardy perennial herbaceous plants and sub-shrubs which are native to Europe, particu¬larly around the Mediterranean. They have now spread all over the world, to America, and as far north as Iceland. Some are prostrate and mat-forming; others can grow up to 30 cm (12 in) in height, and these include T. citriodorus, lemon-scented thyme. T. vulgaris, or garden thyme, is that used mainly in cookery: it has narrow small leaves, which are dark green-grey, and clusters of tubular mauve flowers. (Other thyme flowers vary in colour from white through pale pink and lilac to deep red.) The leaves of all are aromatic, those of the cultivated generally more so than the wild; and those grown in warm climates are always more powerful than those of the chilly, damp north. T. membranaceus, a variety native to Spain, is the most fragrant, and there are caraway- and orange-scented thymes as well.

Thyme was said to have been used by the Sumerians as long ago as 3,500BC. The Ancient Egyptians called it tham, and used the plants in embalming. The Greeks knew of two types: Dioscorides talked of the white – used for medicinal purposes – and the black, which was not favoured as it ‘corrupted the organism and provoked the secretion of bile’. Thyme was one of Hippocrates’ 400 simples or remedies. Infusions of the herb were drunk at the end of banquets for digestive purposes, and offerings were made to Venus and other divinities. The name thyme actually comes from the Greek word thumos, or smell, because of the fragrance of the plant.

The Romans cooked with thyme and used it medicinally. Pliny recommended it as a remedy for epilepsy; he said that the herb should be made into a mattress and that after sleeping on it, the patient would be relaxed and calm. (Interestingly, thyme is reputed to have been added to the hay in the manger for the baby Jesus’ bed.) Pliny also prescribed thyme boiled in vinegar as a headache remedy. Thyme was considered an antidote for snake bites; it was also burned outside houses to keep dangerous reptiles away. The Romans thought thyme dispelled melancholy and promoted bravery: soldiers would have a bath with thyme in it before going into battle, an idea still extant at the time of the Crusades, when ladies would embroider sprigs of thyme on their knights’ scarves before they went to the East. In the Middle Ages, St Hildegarde prescribed thyme for plague and paralysis, leprosy and body lice. Thyme was a strewing herb in Britain, and was included in the posies carried by judges and kings to protect them from disease in public.

The respect for the properties of thyme has not diminished. Lemery, a seventeenth-century French physician and chemist, thought of it as a brain fortifier, and a stimulant of the digestive system. In 1719, Neumann isolated and discovered the thymol in thyme; later Cadeac and Meunier isolated carvacrol and pinene. During the eighteenth century, thyme was included in many preparations, one of them a baume tranquille for nervous disorders. In 1884, Camperdon, a scholar, studied the therapeutic properties and noticed that thyme had a direct action on the nervous system, and that it helped re-establish strength in convalescence. Dr Leclerc later prescribed it in cases of asthma, depression and respiratory infections, and for chronic coughs. Thyme oil was used, along with clove, lemon and chamomile essential oils, as a disinfectant and antiseptic in hospitals until the First World War. As it could kill yellow fever organisms, and was seven times stronger than carbolic, it was sprayed on the clothes of soldiers during the Crimean War to protect against disease and lice.


Description: Thyme oil is steam-distilled from the leaves and flower tops. It is fatty and thick, and the smell is pleasant, reminiscent of the fresh plant, but obviously more persistently.

The colour can be red or white depending, it was once thought, on whether the plant used was white or red thyme. However, it has been proved that it is not the colour of the plant that influences the colour of the oil; it is the type of container in which the oil was distilled. In poorer countries, metallic containers are used, and these oxidate when in contact with the oil, turning it red. In other countries more expensive onyx containers are used, which do not react with the oil and so it retains its natural white colour. It is not known how the therapeutic value of thyme oil is affected by the oxidation.

The principal constituents: 25 – 40 percent thymol and carvacrol, with borneol, cineol, linalool, menthane, p-cymene, pinene and triterpenic acid.

Dangers: essential oil of thyme comes from the south of France, Spain, Israel and North Africa. Since the disaster at Chernobyl, I have used the white Israeli version because of fears about the radioactive content of thyme plants. Although many Western countries and marry plants were affected by fallout, it seems to have ‘fixed’ more in thyme than other herbs. Despite this, marry Western producers continue to sell oils for therapy, so it is doubly important to be sure of the provenance of any oil you buy. I also advise avoiding the red oil (see above).


In illness
Thyme is a tonic and stimulant, and stomachic, digestive, antispasmodic, pectoral and balsamic. It can help asthma, ‘flu, colds, coughs, fever and nervousness as well as aches and pains. It is also effective for dermatitis, for skin infections and irritations, for swellings provoked by gout or rheumatic problems, for backache and sciatica. I would not be without it.

(See also abdominal pain, abscesses and boils, anorexia nervosa, anthrax, bruises, catarrh, cold sores, coughing, cuts and wounds, diarrhoea, gastritis, gum disease, halitosis, lumbago, muscular pains, pneumonia and stings and bites.)

Aches and pains remedy
For joint pains, backache and sciatica, take a hot bath, mixing in 15 drops of essential oil of thyme, plus 2 tbsp bicarbonate of soda. To reinforce the oil’s action, add a few drops of eucalyptus or cedarwood which work well together. After the bath, rub the affected areas with an oil made up of 15 ml (1 tbsp) soya oil, 2 drops wheatgerm oil, 10 drops of thyme oil and 5 drops of eucalyptus oil.

Tiredness and depression remedy
Take a warm bath, mixing in 5 drops of thyme oil and 3 drops of marjoram oil. Afterwards, rub the solar plexus and sacrum area with an oil made up with 15 ml (1 tbsp) almond oil, 2 drops wheat germ oil, 7 drops thyme, 2 drops marjoram and 3 drops rose, mixed together very well. Follow with a tisane as below.

Thyme tisane
Infuse a good 15 ml (a heaped tbsp) fresh thyme leaves in 600 ml (1 pint) boiling water for 5 minutes. Drink hot, sweetened with honey. This is good for depression and tiredness, especially effective in the morning instead of tea or coffee, as well as when under stress or pressure at work. It is good too for PMT, menopausal symptoms, or for after colds or ‘flu. When applied externally, infused thyme can help reduce the swellings associated with rheumatism and oedema.

In beauty
For acne, a good astringent can be made by boiling a sprig of fresh thyme (or a pinch of dried) in 2 cups of water for 2 minutes, then leaving to infuse for 5 minutes. Add the juice of half a lemon and rinse the skin with this several times a day. Thyme oil can also be used in pre-shampooing lotions to combat dandruff.

In cookery
Thyme is a major herb and is an essential part of a bouquet garni (together with bay and parsley). The plant dries very well, so its properties are always available for use in the kitchen. Thyme’s fragrance also lasts in cooking, so it is good for long-cooking stews and casseroles; as thyme fixes the iron in meat, so it helps the digestion of stews and casseroles. These properties also make flatulence-inducing foods like beans easier to digest (as practised by the Ancient Egyptians). Its preservative properties make it a natural inclusion in things like pates, sausages, potted meats and pickles; fresh chopped leaves are also delicious added to bread dough’s, omelettes and mushroom dishes. For its flavour, use thyme in marinades, under meats on barbecues, in stuffing’s, soups, stocks, court-bouillons, herb butters for grilled meat or oily fish, and the lemon-scented variety in sweet things like batters or syllabub. (In Iceland, they flavour sour milk with lemon thyme.)

Thyme can flavour herb vinegars and oils, and can make a savoury jelly. Thyme is one of the ingredients of the liqueur Benedictine: this was invented in 1510 as an elixir to revive tired monks, thereafter it was used to combat malarial diseases. Now it is a luxurious treat!

Other uses
Thyme oil is used in soaps and antiseptic preparations. Historically, lemon thyme has been included in pot-pourris, herb bags and pillows, and the garden type in anti-moth bags, on herb seats, and in lawns. Thyme is good for insect bites, and was once used as a medicinal snuff.

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